Late last month, CEO of the San Mateo County/Silicon Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau John Hutar came in front of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors with one request: help hoteliers plead to the state for guidance, or at least a date, when they may be allowed to host conferences and corporate meetings again.
County leaders agreed to advocate on behalf of local hotels and were poised to take action. But just weeks later, California finally released its guidance for events after more than a year of local hotels bleeding event-related revenue. It was the last state to do so.
On April 15, depending on a county’s COVID-19 case metrics, indoor and outdoor events, conferences and meetings will be allowed with attendee limits and COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements.
Hutar wrote in an email to local partners that he is grateful for their advocacy that pushed the state to finally outline what is and isn’t allowed.
“While we hoped for fewer restrictions and larger capacity, we are now in a position to reopen further, bring associates back to work, and resume marketing our destination,” Hutar wrote.
While the Coastside has its share of leisure tourists, Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors' Bureau CEO Krystlyn Giedt said business groups that come midweek for conferences and meetings make up more than half of local hotel revenue.
But for the past year, hotels have been unable to accommodate most business travelers without any guidance from the state on how to host even the smallest meetings and conferences safely. Giedt said that’s cut into the local economy — and not just for the hotels that host the conferences. Nearby accommodations often profit by being within the vicinity of events. She said the singling out of hotel-based meetings felt unreasonable.
“If you can trust a hotel to allow people to stay there, then you should be able to trust the hotel in following those same ethics in holding a responsible meeting,” Giedt said.
According to Hutar, the county as a whole experienced a 76 percent decline in hotel revenue from April to December of last year. That prompted a $365 million decrease in the transient occupancy tax and 25,000 lost jobs in tourism. Statewide, the meetings industry is worth around $4.1 billion. His numbers for the Coastside show occupancy rates down 50 percent from January 2020.
A large share of lost event jobs and revenue in coastal San Mateo County likely comes from the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, which, according to state employment records, temporarily laid off around 500 employees in March 2020. Then it shed 138 more jobs in December. Ritz-Carlton representatives declined to comment on how COVID-19 restrictions are affecting their business.
While it may be the largest hotel employer on the Coastside, the Ritz is far from the only local hotel that furloughed or laid off workers during the pandemic. From her close work with locals, many of who are low-income, Coastside Hope Executive Director Judith Guerrero estimates that around 400 people on the Coastside had their hours reduced in the industry, sometimes down to just 10 to 15 per week. Giedt’s estimates are closer to 1,000 people. Guerrero said the Coastside Inn, which was just converted into a homeless shelter, did not retain or help relocate its employees.
And the furloughs keep getting extended. Guerrero said while helping front desk workers get access to COVID-19 vaccines, she heard many hotels are asking workers to fill new roles rather than hire back old employees.
While the new guidance is something to celebrate for local hotels, industry experts know it won’t provide an instant boon to the industry.
“With California keeping it a complete unknown, a lot of hotels haven’t felt comfortable booking groups with the thought of having to cancel,” Giedt said. “A lot of our hotels are already out 2021 revenue because the state refused to be clear.”